Each January, we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the extraordinary civil rights contributions and sacrifice he made for our country.
We also take this day to reflect on how to mirror Dr. King’s traits in our own work. One of the biggest lessons we learn from Dr. King is that leaders are not always the ones that raise their hand for the role. Some are nominated. Some rise to the challenge.
In Dr. King’s case, “It was a role he neither sought nor was prepared for since his whole education had been focused on a scholarly approach to religion aimed at becoming a minister.” He was a young preacher with his first parish, and he was chosen at a town meeting one night to lead protests against racial discrimination. At only 26 years old he was asked to become a leader of the movement.
So, on this MLK Day, when what is asked of leadership and us is broadened due to a worldwide pandemic, below we discuss 7 ways we can all rise to the leadership occasion. And by doing so, live the values MLK demonstrated in his life.
Dedication and Optimism
“I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Nobel Peace Prize speech
Do you bring a level of dedication and optimism to your work? We now have a holiday for Dr. King recognizing his work, but during his life, his activities were not supported by everyone. However, he continued towards his goals with optimism and drive. This level of determination can translate to almost any task you undertake at work where there is a challenge, multiple stakeholders with competing priorities, or a need to build consensus towards improvement.
Be a Visionary
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
As Bernard Banks, a dean of leadership and inclusion at Northwestern University recently stated, “Great leaders and great organizations are never static. Rather than accept the status quo and see how long the organization can stay where it is, they push people forward.”
Are you stepping out of the norm? Is the way you practice business innovative, pushing boundaries towards better standards including strategy improvements and technological innovation? In recruiting, and in business, these changes are necessary to evolve.
“Every (hu)man must decide whether (t)he(y) will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”
How companies treated their workforce in the first days and months of the pandemic was telling. Those that showed compassion, flexibility, awareness, empathy, and innovation stood out, they made the news, and everyone couldn’t help but compare it to their own workplace.
We have gone through shared tragedies, and out of that many workers now demand a workplace that runs its business with humanity, supporting its people and communities, and promoting inclusion – not just the bottom line. They are no longer OK being considered a cog in the wheel.
Just like MLK worked towards social transformation, we are going through our own transformation. How can you help lead that as a change agent? As a Forbes article last week said, with the great resignation, companies cannot go back to a pre-pandemic way of thinking. “The leaders that ‘get’ the shifting landscape will win the war for talent and their companies will thrive.”
Lead with Character
“If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”
Do you lead by example in terms of your values at work? The character you demonstrate while meeting challenges and pursuing goals is what many will remember, and learn from. You are being a role model, as well as a leader.
Communication and Deep Listening
“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”
As you work to achieve goals, some efforts may be met with resistance, a natural force that pushes against change. However, the way you communicate with colleagues and stakeholders can develop trust, build knowledge, and create better outcomes. Leading is not dictating, it is guiding, so use various communication avenues – including active listening. Communicate with transparency, consistency, clarity, use visuals, put it in writing as well as verbally, and prepare to understand where your audience is coming from – whether they are a candidate, colleague, or other stakeholders.
Collaboration with Humility
“We cannot walk alone.”
Harvard Leadership Professor Bill George stresses that most leaders can’t do it alone, “they need to be willing to accept help. This becomes even more important the higher up in your company you become, you need a great support team around you.” Especially when you have distractors or those who disagree, they help give you confidence and support. Even more importantly, good leaders know they don’t have all the answers. It’s through collaboration and teamwork, and not in isolation, that most large workplace goals are achieved.
Create a Culture of Solidarity
A recent Harvard Business Review article highlights one vital way to retain employees today – give them a sense of purpose and community. As the author states, “When purpose (is) activated into actions, not just words, an organization (is) three times more likely to have people treat each other fairly and serve the greater good” of the company.
Even though we are not dealing with tasks of the same enormity as Dr. King, our actions and reactions in the workplace can be analogous to his. We can bring his positive words and characteristics to our roles, and lead with them.
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